As the recession lingers and law school applications skyrocket, applicants should pause to consider just what sort of beast law school is. Out of all graduate school options, law school seems like the cheap and effective one. Most Ph.D. programs require significant years of work that result in a modest salary in research, administration or private practice; medical school offers a significant salary at roughly the same time investment, but at a considerably higher cost; but law school offers both a short time investment with a high earning potential (though usually at the cost of significant student loans). Perhaps the law school J.D. competes only with the MBA in its perceived payoff. Yet both have come under attack as being ineffective and superfluous as investment banks and large law firms continue to hemorrhage employees.
Law school is an easy target, in part because it pursues ambiguous goals. Law school promises both to be undergraduate-plus — a teaching environment that emphasizes analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and intellectual rigor — and a professional school, where students learn the suite of researching, writing and advocacy skills that effective lawyers use. The J.D. is somewhat of an anomaly: academics disagree as to whether the degree is doctorate-level or not.
Members of journals are generally required to write a small, thesis-length piece (called a note) during their second year, but the length and depth cannot compare to a dissertation, and students write most notes without significant faculty supervision. The vast majority of these notes are dropped after they have been written, left unpublished and unpursued. In addition, a significant number of students decline the journal application process in the first place.
Law school doesn’t strictly impart attorney skills either. Only one required course teaches the fundamentals of legal practice (“lawyering” or “legal research and writing”); the vast majority of other classes are substantive or exploratory in nature.
However valuable the Socratic method is as a teaching tool, its justification as preparation for judicial inquiry can fall flat, particularly when most lawyers, even those practicing litigation, never see the inside of a courtroom. Law school graduates exit with principles, not rules. No law student leaves school knowing what the law is, rather, they all leave with a toolbox for thinking about legal questions.
After passing the bar, lawyers specialize and largely ignore the law in the areas they don’t practice. Students learn the most about law at their firms, in their clinics and at their internships.
Law school is schizophrenic in a more abstract way as well. The rigor that makes law school appealing also burdens the experience with an insistent linearity. Most law students are over-achieving type-A personalities, helping to make the environment one that cultivates lawyerly attributes: an exhaustive work ethic, a detail-oriented approach and an obsessive nature. The timeline and pace of the lifestyle leaves little time for exploration, and less for reflection.
The popular conception that law students go on to pursue a diverse range of different jobs is true. But it’s not true in the way most think. The law touches a lot of things: governance, business, social relations, international relations, technology — but despite the diverse contexts, the purpose of law schools is to create prestigious lawyers.
To pursue a career in public interest, teaching, management, policy or administration requires considerable job search fortitude. You will be swimming against a tide of processes created to transition law students into lawyers.
The popular perception of legal work can also be quite different from the reality. Very few legal jobs require covert investigations, in-court turnabouts, and flashes of genius. Most require patient document review, extensive computer research and copious editing. Law students must keep their career goals in mind throughout the training process to effectively transition into a successful, happy career.
To those who are applying to law school this season: good luck.
Benjamin Keep, a third-year law student at Cornell, administers Barely Legal, a column featuring a rotating cast of law students that appears alternate Fridays this semester. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org